Big East Roundup, Week 2: Championship Hopes Already Fading
"They're in a little bit of shock," said first-year Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, describing the mood of his team after a 28-14 cross-country defeat at the hands of Fresno State. The Bearcats' loss was brutal -- the defending conference champions hemorrhaging 28 unanswered points after being spotted at 14-0 lead. The Bulldogs roughed up quarterback Zach Collaros, sacking him eight times and holding the explosive Bearcats offense to just 234 yards.
Jones, whose anguished look throughout much of the fourth quarter was almost too much to handle, was quick to acknowledge troubles up front. He said he may move several linemen around, and otherwise "open up the competition" this week. It's an appropriate strategy but, as the Cincinnati Enquirer points out, depth is an issue on the line and the cavalry may not arrive in time for salvation in 2010.
Adding to the misery, USC transfer wide receiver Vidal Hazelton is out for the year with a torn ACL. Jones said he would move Marcus Barnett to outside receiver.
The preseason Big East favorite Pittsburgh Panthers were equally inept, needing a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter rally to force overtime on the road against Utah and its frenzied fans. "That was about as loud of a crowd, atmosphere since I've been here. We won't be in a more hostile environment all year," said Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt during the Big East Teleconference.
The Utes' defensive line outran and outmuscled the Panthers' power attack, holding Heisman Trophy candidate Dion Lewis to his lowest career output: 75 yards. Quarterback Tino Sunseri, after doing nothing for three quarters, looked sharp in the fourth, but an overtime interception proved fatal as the Utes connected on an easy field goal to claim the 27-24 victory. Said Wannstedt of his passer's otherwise strong late-game showing: "There was no question he had a good feel for what they were doing."
Perhaps most surprising of the Big East disappointments was Connecticut. The Huskies were offseason darlings, flexing their non-conference credentials with victories over Notre Dame and South Carolina. However, 2009 is over and in 2010, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson humiliated their defense in an epic performance that will go down among the best in Wolverines history. The super-quick quarterback rushed for 197 yards and threw for another 186 on 19 of 22 passing. Huskies tailback Jordan Todman battled his way to another 100-yard performance, but quarterback Zach Frazer and the Huskies offense struggled to put points on the board. A missed field goal and a D.J. Shoemate fumble inside Michigan's 10-yard-line destroyed any chance at changing the outcome from solid defeat to a 30-10 blowout.
Since its inception in 1998, the BCS has yet to see a current Big East school qualify for a spot in its national championship game (Miami and Virginia Tech did, but they're now in the ACC).
Already considered a longshot in its 13th run at the crystal football, defeats by Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Connecticut handed the conference little hope of making it to Glendale, Ariz. on January 10th. The performances triggered a massive collapse in the polls. Pittsburgh went from 15th in the preseason Associated Press poll with 516 points to unranked with 59 points. Cincinnati remained unranked but lost all but four of its 108 preseason points. Connecticut lost all 32 of its preseason points. Only West Virginia made any kind of a dent, climbing from 25th with 184 points to 23rd with 226. Surprisingly, South Florida did not grab a single vote after beating Stony Brook 59-14.
If Jeff Sagarin's computer ranking is any indication, the BCS computers will look even less kindly upon Big East membership in 2010 than already skeptical voters. Sagarin's highest-ranked "predictor" school is Pittsburgh, at No. 21 in his rankings. West Virginia arrives at No. 32 and then a trio of schools are in the 40s with Syracuse at No. 42, South Florida at No. 44 and Rutgers at No. 48. Sagarin takes a particularly grim view of Cincinnati and Connecticut, placing them 77th and 92nd, respectively, in his initial 2010 rankings.
Putting aside the grim initial numbers, there is hope yet that this "basketball conference" can pick up the pace in football. Pittsburgh still has national showcase games against Miami and Notre Dame to restore its place among the elite. Cincinnati has a chance to take down North Carolina State and a suddenly shaky Oklahoma squad in the coming weeks. Rutgers will host preseason ACC darlings North Carolina soon and USF travels to vulnerable Florida this weekend. These are all bee-in-the-bonnet type games that conference members should see as opportunities to climb back into college football's lead pack.
• The Big East's three new coaches went 1-2 on opening week. Louisville's Charlie Strong lost to in-state rival Kentucky 23-16. Cincinnati's Butch Jones fell to Fresno State 28-14. USF coach Skip Holtz defeated Stony Brook 59-14.
• West Virginia's Noel Devine is now eighth all-time on the Big East rushing charts after totaling 111 yards and a touchdown against Coastal Carolina. He now has 3,492 career rush yards, leaving him 1,672 shy of Avon Cobourne's Mountaineers career rushing record.
• The Mountaineers will travel to Marshall University on Friday to play in the "Friends of Coal Bowl." ESPN will televise the contest.
• Cincinnati and Fresno State went backward in a combined nine offensive drives.
• Rutgers and West Virginia posted defensive shutouts, making them just two of nine teams nationally to hold an opponent scoreless on opening week.